When we decided to hold a class in Machine Quilting Techniques, we had some questions for the teacher, Jennifer Houlden of Quilts by Jen. Here are her answers:

Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your newsletter and talk about machine quilting.
I have always loved to quilt my own quilts. I love the whole process – picking the thread, the motif and quilting the quilt. Even pulling the threads through and tying them off and burying them once the quilting is done. The first time I ever did this, I had no idea there were such a thing as self-threading needles and ended up trying to thread a normal needle. I only did that once.
Quilting I soon learned was not something that was instantly mastered. There is a learning curve and it takes practice practice practice! Especially free motion. But once mastered, it opens up a whole new world of creativity for completing quilt tops.

When did you start quilting your quilt tops on a domestic machine?
I didn’t have anyone in my family who quilted or taught me to quilt by hand. My grandmother did make quilts at one time it was before I came along. I’m also not sure I would have had the patience to hand quilt one quilt over a winter. So probably a good thing I could quilt them on my domestic sewing machine.
So I started with the very first quilt I made which was a tree skirt. It didn’t go quite as planned. I had bought a new machine which had a stitch on it that looked like hand quilting and figured that would be perfect. Then of course being a tree skirt made with fabric that had gold stars in it, I figured gold metallic thread would look great. After reading about the stitch, I also discovered I needed to use invisible thread in the bobbin in order to get the hand quilted look. Let’s just say the quilt got quilted but I’ve never used that thread combo ever again. My first quilt and my friends’ kids loved it under their tree.

What was your biggest challenge in learning how to machine quilt?
The biggest challenge when I first started machine quilting was getting the larger quilts pushed through the machine. I would roll them and this would help. Mostly I did simple straight line motifs along the width or length of the fabric with the walking foot. When I moved to free motion quilting, I still rolled the quilts to a certain extent but I would quilt a quarter section and move around the quilt in quarter sections which made it much easier to move through the machine.
Another challenge was not to be a complete perfectionist. It is okay if it is a bit less than perfect especially when starting out. A way to hide imperfections is to use thread that blends in with the quilt rather than one that contrasts and will show all imperfections.
And to remember that practice is the key to mastering machine quilting.

Are you self taught or did/do you take classes?
Mostly I am self taught and just play with different quilting motifs using the walking foot and the free motion foot. Some designs work out, some don’t. I have taken some classes and have always come away with great ideas and tips to help improve my machine quilting.

What is the biggest challenge(s) in using a domestic machine?
I find the biggest challenge is the limited throat space on the domestic machine although they are making machines now with larger throat space which makes it easier to quilt all sized pieces. And I find it very annoying when I have to stop and change the bobbin – it should be an endless bobbin. I suspect all quilters would agree with this.
The second challenge is that it is hard on the neck and shoulders sitting at the machine -usually in a bent over position. Ways to help with this is to take frequent breaks (set an alarm for 20 minute intervals) – get up and walk around, do some stretches for the arms, shoulders and neck. Make sure that the table and chair heights are good for you. Sit up straight in your chair. Use a cushion that keeps you sitting upright.

If you were buying a new machine, what features would you want so it could be used for piecing and machine quilting?
The must have features are:
– needle up and down
– hovering presser foot when machine stops sewing – this is a great asset when moving the quilt as you don’t have to lift the pressure foot every time you need to turn the quilt to change directions when using the walking foot
– dual feed – for piecing, I like a machine with dual feed as it moves the fabric along the feed dogs evenly and smoothly
– speed control – for piecing, I like to zoom along but for quilting I usually slow the speed down a bit so I have more control

What do students tend to struggle with?
The three main things I have seen my students and quilters struggle with are:
1. Being relaxed and wanting perfection from the get go. Machine quilting takes practice and lots of it, especially free motion. Even when I haven’t done it for a while, I can tell and it takes me a bit to get back in the groove.
2. Thread Tension – this is a big one for many quilters. They have been told at one time or another to never touch the tension. In order to quilt through several layers, the tension has to be changed and depending on the weight of the thread being used ,it definitely has to be changed. Changing the tension makes for smooth even stitches.
3. Self doubt – fear of trying – many look at the quilting on quilts and say I can’t do that because it looks really hard. Many have never even tried to do it and have no idea that it is much easier than it looks. We can all do it with patience and practice and the right tools.

What are the key tools for machine quilting?
My favourite tools for machine quilting include:
– quilting gloves for free motion – they make it so much easier to move the quilt along under the foot
– Supreme Slider – this is a slippery Silicone mat with a hole cut out for the machine needle that covers the area under the machine making bumps smooth that the quilt can get hung up on as it moves under the foot
– extension table – to extend your working giving more space for the quilt. I find the more flat and even space with the machine makes for a much better quilting experience.
– open toed darning foot – I like the open toed foot better than a closed foot as I can see my stitching more easily
– walking foot
– Chaco liner for marking lines to quilt on
– self threading needles
What do you like about machine quilting?
I like machine quilting because it is a creative outlet for me. It lets me draw on my quilt and bring a quilt top to life with thread of all weights and colours. It gives texture and depth to the quilt top. I feel very satisfied when I have finished quilting a quilt.

Is wine an important tool when you’re quilting?!
I’ve never used wine as a quilting tool because I am one of those rare people who do not like wine but I know that many quilters swear by it.

I am looking forward to introducing more quilters to machine quilting in my class on Saturday October 26. The class includes basic introduction to both walking foot and free motion. I also have a section on my website Quilts by Jen called Free Motion Friday’s, filled with all kinds of motifs and techniques. https://quiltsbyjen.ca/category/free-motion-friday/